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Democrat Barack Obama bid Tuesday to take a leap forward to the party's White House nomination as Kentucky and Oregon voted, but Hillary Clinton insisted only she could win the general election.
The Illinois senator was looking to clinch a symbolic majority of elected delegates to cement his right to run in November's presidential election against John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee.
But fearful of provoking the combative Clinton, the Obama campaign denied it was adopting a triumphalist tone as the candidate headed to an evening rally in Iowa, the scene of his shock win in the year's first nominating contest.
"This is a very important threshold today. Having the majority of pledged delegates is a tremendous new accomplishment," former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, one of the Obama campaign's national co-chairs, told CNN.
"We're very excited about it, but it doesn't mean it's the end," he said.
"And so, we're going to play this all the way to the end," Daschle said, looking through to the climax of the primary season on June 3.
According to RealClearPolitics.com, Obama is 17 pledged delegates away from a majority of 1,627 heading into the home stretch of the Democratic nominating campaign.
With party elders known as "superdelegates" thrown in, the independent website said he needed 112 more delegates in total to reach the ultimate winning line of 2,025.
A total of 103 delegates was up for grabs in Tuesday's primaries. Obama was tipped by pollsters to win the liberal western state of Oregon, while Clinton was heavily favored in the bourbon and horseracing state of Kentucky.
The last polling stations in Kentucky were to close at 2300 GMT. In Oregon, where voting is by mail only, completed ballots had to be dropped off at registration centers by 0300 GMT Wednesday.
The New York senator's campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, predicted a landslide in Kentucky that would give superdelegates reason to doubt Obama's capacity to win against McCain in November.
"You want to beat Hillary? Beat her. That's the only way you're going to beat Hillary Clinton," he said on MSNBC.
McAuliffe turned to no lesser an authority than Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's long-time counselor and a hate figure for most Democrats, to burnish his arguments about electability.
An electoral map prepared by Rove's consulting firm and leaked to the press showed Clinton beating McCain easily in November. The race with Obama as the Democratic nominee was suggested to be much tighter.
But that argument, and Clinton's claim that she now leads in the national popular vote including disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan, has not cut much ice with superdelegates so far.
Two more of the Democratic leaders, from Iowa and Guam, announced their support for Obama Tuesday, a day after five superdelegates including the Senate's longest-serving member, 90-year-old Robert Byrd, endorsed him.
McCain was already anticipating a November faceoff with Obama, using a speech in Miami to savage the Democrat's Cuba policy, a day after accusing him of a "reckless" misreading of the threat from Iran.
Obama's willingness to hold talks with the Castro regime and to ease the US trade embargo on Cuba "would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators," the Republican said.
The nation's top elected Hispanic, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, shot back for the Obama campaign that the Republican was pursuing "the Bush-McCain foreign policy that has failed all over the world."
The occasion for McCain's speech was Cuba's independence day and the venue was in the state of Florida, a pivotal battleground for the November election where Obama was planning to spend the rest of the week from Wednesday.
The trip was to be Obama's first serious bout of campaigning in the Sunshine State, whose primary results, like Michigan's, were voided by Democratic bosses over a scheduling row.
Heading to the final contests in Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota, Clinton's hopes hinge in large part on getting the Florida and Michigan delegates reinstated at a Democratic National Committee meeting on May 31.